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New Charlotte Hornets head coach Charles Lee has one job that matters most of all

When Charles Lee addressed his first news conference as the Charlotte Hornets’ head coach Tuesday, his excitement was palpable. This, you could tell, was a man who couldn’t wait to start his first NBA head coaching job after barely missing out on a couple of those sorts of jobs before.

“Not getting across the finish line,” Lee called it.

He crossed that finish line with the Hornets, though, who in Lee hired a young NBA assistant who has already been an integral part of two NBA championship franchises (Boston and Milwaukee).

Now Lee must take the Hornets across their own finish line. But the first thing he has to do is to get the Hornets into the race.

Sixteen teams in the 30-team NBA make the playoffs every year. You’ve got a better than 50% chance to do it. And yet the Hornets haven’t made that 16-team field since 2016 — dubiously, this ranks as the longest non-playoff streak in the NBA. Outside of the Carolinas, the Hornets are irrelevant.

Lee’s biggest job: Make the playoffs, thereby making the Hornets relevant once more.

The pattern for the past eight years for Hornets fans has been a familiar one. It starts with a bit of hope, followed by a slew of losses, followed by apathy, followed by pain. Somewhere in there each year comes the part where the Hornets’ coaches, players or front office blame their latest rash of injuries for their predicament, as if this isn’t a completely predictable part of NBA basketball every year.

The Hornets’ fan base is actually better than any team with that long of a postseason drought has much of a right to expect. The team routinely draws a higher percentage of Hornets fans to Spectrum Center than, say, the Carolina Panthers do to Bank of America Stadium (where opposing fan takeovers in the fall pop up like dandelions in the summer).

New Charlotte Hornets coach Charles Lee (left) and Hornets’ general manager Jeff Peterson hold up a jersey with Lee’s name on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, at Lee’s opening news conference.
New Charlotte Hornets coach Charles Lee (left) and Hornets’ general manager Jeff Peterson hold up a jersey with Lee’s name on Tuesday, June 25, 2024, at Lee’s opening news conference.

Still, Hornets fans deserve better. And Lee has a chance to make them better.

Lee sounded Tuesday like a careful optimist, which isn’t that newsworthy but which a coach in his position should be. He’s made it to the NBA head coach pinnacle before he turned 40 (he’s 39, with a wife and three daughters). Now he just has to win to stay there.

In Charlotte, that’s by far the hardest part.

When Lee looked out at the crowd gathered for his news conference Tuesday — held at Lowe’s Tech Hub in South End because the Spectrum Center is under renovation — the team’s co-owners Rick Schnall and Gabe Plotkin were on his right. Several of his future players filled in the seats to his left. General manager Jeff Peterson sat directly next to him.

While the men on his right were going to pay his salary and while Peterson will supply his roster and talk to him constantly, it’s the men on the left who will actually be most important to his future. One was Brandon Miller, who had a stellar rookie season and — unlike LaMelo Ball — showed a predilection last season for durability.

A guard himself during his own playing days at Bucknell, Lee has something of a reputation as a guard whisperer. What he can get out of the Ball-Miller tandem will go a long way toward determining how poorly or well these Hornets play.

Toward the end of his 30-minute news conference, I asked Lee what he could promise the team’s about the future. “What I would say to the fans right now is that as I went through this process, Gabe, Rick and Jeff made it clear to me that they wanted this to be one of the premier franchises in the NBA,” Lee said. “And they explained to me how passionate a fan base the Carolinas can be. And as soon as I heard those two things, I was all in. ... The things we can promise from this team is they’re going to be very competitive, they’re going to be very together, and we’re going to be focused on what we can control is our daily progress, process and effort.”

It’s true that Schnall and Plotkin — who bought the team from former owner Michael Jordan almost a year ago — are aiming high. They toss that word “premier” around pretty often, and it’s a pretty word to aspire to.

Lee knows what world-class talent looks like. He just left the world champion Boston Celtics, after all. But he insisted that the Hornets weren’t that far off.

“I think we have a very, very good team,” Lee said. “We’ve been snake-bitten, I think, with some injuries. But I’m looking forward to this talent-rich group doing everything they can to be healthy.”

Did that quote sound like it was pointed toward LaMelo to you? Ah, that’s probably just me being cynical. I’ve watched too many hundreds of Hornets losses to get very optimistic in any offseason. Ball played in only 22 of a possible 82 games last year, due to the same old ankle injuries that flare up for him most every year.

The Hornets still have free agency and the 2024 NBA draft to improve a roster that has talent but certainly isn’t “talent-rich,” despite what Lee said.

There is, in other words, a lot of work to do. Lee sounded Tuesday like a man very much looking forward to doing it, and he better be.